Theresa May calling the EU’s bluff could have disastrous consequences

For those who feared the very worst, the Prime Minister offered some scant grounds for Brexit optimism. Her tone, compared with that of the speech she gave at Chatham House in January, was mostly conciliatory. The warmth of the words, and the invocation of a spirit of cooperation and “special relationship” will help, though they may not long survive the first skirmishes in the negotiating chambers of Brussels.

The priorities, for example, Theresa May set out in her letter to the European Council President Donald Tusk are broadly right, given the baleful circumstances. The rights of EU citizens in Britain, and of EU citizens resident in Spain and elsewhere, are given due recognition – “we should always put or citizens first”. As with the Brexit White Paper before, there is also an evident awareness of the imperative of preserving the traditional common travel area between Britain and Ireland, not least because of the Northern Irish peace process, in enough trouble already.

Scotland and other devolved administrations will gain new powers – an important concession to Nicola Sturgeon. Ms May was also surprisingly keen on “a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union that allows for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states”. Of course, for a services-oriented economy such as the UK, such a deal about physical goods is less valuable than it first appears, but still there is at least some positive ambition attached to that commitment.

There are plenty of grounds for disquiet, however. The first is the seeming lack of agreement even on the ground rules for the negotiations.

Already, the EU’s negotiators have indicated they wish to settle the “divorce bill” before sketching out any future economic relationships. The British plainly want both to be considered together. Not only that, but Ms May would like to link the talks on economic and trade matters with…

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